A great way to experience Korean culture is to jump right into Korean pasttimes, like public baths.
“Public? Like, as in naked?” I asked when I heard of the bath houses (in Korean, they’re 찜질방, in latin letters jjimjilbang).
Yes. Sex-segregated naked bathing. But it’s also more of a spa and cheap motel as well, depending on which one you go to.
Here’s a good article outlining exactly what a jimjilbang is and how the process works.
I don’t have a lot of opportunities to visit jimjilbangs because of where I live, so when a new friend said she wanted to go to Spaland, a luxury jimjilbang in Busan, I jumped at the chance. “It’ll be fun, right? And we won’t be that conspicuous, right? Will they point at us and stare?” I wanted to ask my friend. But she had lived in Korea for two years as an English teacher and visited several jimjilbangs, even sleeping at several, and promised it would be a lot of fun.
We arrived separately at Shinsegae, the largest department store in the world (Centum City subway stop), meeting at the entrance to SpaLand. I had to ask several employees where SpaLand was, because it’s not clearly marked on maps. I knew it was on Level 1, but others had to direct me through the perfume section to a narrow corridor with a modest sign announcing “SpaLand.”
My friend, Christie, showed up a couple minutes later and took the lead, showing me what to do and where to do it (thankfully).
“This is probably the nicest jimjilbang in Korea,” she confided as we approached the front desk. “Here. We pay for four hours here and are given a key.”
For 18,000 won I bought four hours in the jimjilbang, thinking that it was way too much time, but my friend had to know what she was doing.
“It’s a smooth entrance to the jimjilbang world,” she told me as we received our receipts, then went up an escalator and to a bench to pull off our shoes. “This isn’t a 24-hour one, and it has a pretty large communal area.”
We found our locker with our key, put up our shoes, and walked down a corridor to another desk. After presenting our receipts to the woman behind the desk she handed us a pair of clothes to wear in the common areas and two towels.
Down the next hallway was the women’s changing room. This is where you see your first naked people. Korean women of all ages walked around half-clothed, unclothed, holding towels, blow drying their hair, and whatever else through the large room. Our key’s number showed us our clothing locker, so we went there and took off our clothing, leaving our communal clothing and one towel in the locker as well. After tying up my hair, I peeked around and some of my apprehension faded. I had been to a Turkish bath last year, which also involved some nudity (A good stepping-stone, I think for myself), and the experience actually made me more confident and comfortable in my body and with women’s bodies in general.
In the changing room were vending machines for toothbrushes, toothpaste, water, snacks, hair nets, makeup applicators, and anything else you can imagine for hygiene or grooming (Koreans take grooming very seriously). This isn’t normally provided in all jimjilbangs, but because it’s SpaLand, well, it’s luxury.
While Turkish baths usually have attendants and going solo is uncommon, the exact opposite is normal in Korea. We walked through the doors into the baths, dropping our towels off on metal racks, and went to the showers. Here, we had two choices: a regular shower (no curtains) or a sit-down-on-a-plastic-stool shower. We elected for the stand up because we didn’t want to sit on stool where other naked butts had been.
Showering can be a simple rinse, just to get dirt and grime off as the spa requires, or a full shower with shampoo and body wash, provided in the showers.
Once showering is finished, the pools were available to us! We were freezing and picked the hottest (and closest) pool, at 41 degrees Celsius. At this point, we were the only Westerners there, but my friend assured me that Westerners frequent the place, enough that we wouldn’t be stared at much. I have to admit, people analyzing my body was more of a fear than just being undressed. And for the most part, women behaved themselves. Once we were in water, it’s much easier to cover up, anyway.
There were a handful of pools around the bathing area, of varying degrees, and we talked and moved from pool to pool as we felt like, enjoying the jets and the heat. At one point a woman was definitely staring at both of us, so I merely returned her gaze, slowly looking up and down her body. She must’ve felt uncomfortable (imagine that!) and turned away. That’s the best way to deal with the lookers. Another looker was a young girl who floated over to us and tried to peek, We were mostly submerged in bubbly water, so she never got a good look. The girl was also interested in our English, I think, and after she realized staring at two white girls wasn’t that exciting she swam back to her mother.
One of the best parts about SpaLand’s bathing area is it’s outdoor pools. They’re discreetly placed and covered with latticework so no one can peek in, and the pools are made of stone rather than tile, creating a more sylvan atmosphere. The day was drizzly and cool, which made the 38 degree bath steam around us whenever a rain drop splashed nearby. It was pretty amazing.
After an hour and a half, Christie suggested we move on. I was a little disappointed–if I had more endurance, I would’ve sat outside all day happily.
“What else is there?” I asked.
She grinned as we grabbed our towels and went back to our lockers. “Saunas and food and foot baths!”
After toweling off and dressing in the spa’s outfit (the top was like a scrub shirt, the bottom was like boy’s cargo pants), we made out way to the mirrors and blowdried our hair, using sterilized combs and brushes provided. I slathered on lotion (it was cherry blossom scented and pretty high quality). Then, barefoot, we padded out of the locker rooms and to the communal area.
Relaxation, Saunas, and Food
Here were families, friends, and couples hanging out in identical clothing. The wall of windows let in gray light while we maneuvered around people, decorative ferns and pools, and domed saunas until we found the snack bar. The snacks were more expensive than what you could buy in the grocery store, but not too overpriced. We both bought drinks, putting it on our key’s tab (this is one of the very nice things about SpaLand–you don’t have to carry your wallet around with you).
Koreans have this thing against chairs, so we sat on the tiled floor of the rest area next to small groups of Koreans watching a historical drama show. After about 20 minutes of resting, we decided to explore. First, upstairs, was the relaxation room. Here were rows and rows of paired leather recliners, complete with mini TV screens attached. Well, we leaned back and clicked through the channels. Christie found a Kpop concert she enjoyed, while I found the BBC miniseries Pride & Prejudice subtitled in Korean. The speakers were by our ears, so we lay back and enjoyed ourselves.
“There’s a full restaurant somewhere over here, too,” my friend said. We were running low on time, so we didn’t search too long for it.
“I’m ready to see the saunas,” I said, so we left the relaxation bar and first went back downstairs to the foot baths. These are outside, under an awning, and lined with rocks rather than tile. Because it was raining we decided not to stay too long, but we enjoyed watching a father try to convince his toddler to walk around the pool with him.
Once inside we went for the saunas. Korean have this passion for all things themed. It weirded me out when I first got here, but I’m starting to get into the craze. Their saunas are also themed–Roman, turkish, pyramidic, new age, and more. Each of the saunas have different temperatures (we stepped inside one that was 71 degrees Celsius! It was way too hot for us). We moved from sauna to sauna, enjoying the ambience, and when my friend declared at the turkish sauna was her favorite, I heartily agreed.
By then time was short, and although I would’ve loved to get a full meal in the restaurant and then napped in the recliners, we went back to the women’s changing room. We dropped our towels and clothing into a bin, then went out. At first it was disorienting because the entrances/exits are similar, but I just followed Christie. We approached a desk and let the woman scan the keys around our wrists. We paid for the drinks (you can also extend your four hours here) and used the key to get through the exit gate. Finally I recognized where we were–the shoe lockers. Christie found her shoes and left her key in the locker, and I did likewise. We slipped our shoes on, went down the escalator, and left SpaLand, more refreshed than before.
“That was awesome!” I said. “I’m so glad you invited me!”
After we parted ways, I spent my time on the subway thinking of how to convince my other friends that the SpaLand jimjilbang experience is worth the dress code.
- Bring water to drink after the bathing–the combination of the water and heat somehow dehydrates you
- You may get stares, especially if you are beyond the “normal” Westerner appearance. This means being of African descent, having red hair, or anything beyond what Koreans think of as usual when envisioning Westerners.
- Instead of worrying about your appearance, realize that this is pretty average stuff for many women around the world. While I don’t recommend staring at other women, noticing things out of the corners of your eye are unavoidable (and calming, I think). There is no such thing as a perfect body. We all have scars, lumps, birthmarks, rolls, and sags. Being in a place where everyone accepts the body as what it is–our bodies–rather than glorifying it or shaming it can really do wonders for your self-esteem. I found it to be a really healthy thing for me. The diversity and sameness of our bodies is grounding to think about.
- This is my experience at SpaLand (which I do recommend!), and other jimjilbangs can be pretty different and probably not as luxurious.